Avoiding Code Pitfalls

Every building project is a complicated mixture of moving parts: people, materials, equipment and, of course, cash.  To go well, much less right, means that all of the constantly moving parts are in sync over an often-extended period of time.  One of the key elements of any construction project are the many laws that must be adhered to, the codes, that govern the construction process to ensure the building is safe and secure for its occupants and visitors.  Code compliance – building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, fire, energy efficiency, accessibility – requires a builder’s constant attention, from initial design to completion.   There are a few simple things to keep in mind to smooth the process.

1. Familiarize yourself with your local building code.

There is no such thing as a universally applicable U.S. building code, (except in theory) applicable to all construction in every jurisdiction across the country.  Instead, there are a number of Model Codes, some or all of which are adopted by local building departments with various local amendments.

Step 1, then, is really to familiarize yourself with the specific code that apply to your project in the area where you are planning to build and the type of structure you are intent on building.  These can be obtained from your local building department, or they can tell you where you can purchase a copy. 

Of course, even the building code is not a complete set of do’s and don’ts for builders and managers; it relies on a great number of other documents, which it references, for the specifics.   There is just no way to know it all.  And while building codes are the epitome of user-not-so-friendly, they are the law of the land when it comes to construction, so you need to know what’s required.

2. Code interpretations and assumptions are necessary as a project goes through the
    design process.  

Let’s also be clear about one other simple fact:  Building codes, while inevitably applicable, are not always a clear set of hard and fast rules.  In fact, the entire building process, from design to completion, demands an ongoing approach to the building code that involves both assumptions and interpretation of the code along the way.  Making the right assumptions and developing suitable interpretations helps you avoid costly and time-consuming delays.  Experts, individuals or companies proficient in the applicable codes, can also provide invaluable support when it comes to making acceptable assumptions or interpreting the code appropriately.

3. Keep open lines of communication with the building department.

Like most things, creating and maintaining a collegial relationship with the building department, plan reviewer and inspectors will go a long way to ensuring that your project is on target – on budget and on time.  Sharing your initial plans with the building department, before you ever put a shovel in the ground, is a smart move, as is maintaining open lines of communication throughout the construction process. 

Correcting code violations is expensive and time consuming, and neither you nor the building department staff want to be the cause of any such delay.  Once again an expert, familiar with both the applicable codes and building department process, can be an invaluable resource.  Bottom line – talk to the building department early and often. 

4. Sometimes you and the building department may not agree.

Because building codes are not entirely complete, you occasionally have to interpret them.  Moreover, codes are not updated every year, so sometimes they lag behind advancements in both design and materials, which means that there are times when what you want to do or incorporate into your project requires a fresh interpretation.   In addition, some building departments lag in adopting these codes for several years making compliance even more complicated. 

If you are aware of this, it’s important to discuss timing of your project and what edition of the codes will apply with the building department before you go down the road.  It’s also essential to have your ducks in a row: making sure that the adjustment you seek to make (a new material, a new process) does not in any way detract from the safety and security of the building.  If you can justify your change, by persuading the building department that what you are doing clearly complies with the spirit and intent of the code, you’ll go a long way toward having a change approved.  This takes a good deal of expertise and effort to properly document compliance.

5. Everyone, ultimately, wants the same thing, a safe and well-constructed building.     

Rare is the building project that is pure smooth sailing from start to finish.  There are inevitable hurdles, some, even many, of which are code-related.  Communication is key – from the beginning to the end, and maintaining an open line of communication with the building department and your inspectors will help smooth the way through the inevitable rough spots.  Likewise, doing your best to avoid an adversarial relationship with the inspector is also a good move.  Conflict rarely achieves a desired result.  Working together as the process unfolds is a far more likely way of ensuring timely completion.